In which Kaz goes cruising for a bruising
I was talking to my friend Parvathy recently. I was in a particularly good mood as I had tried on a pair of trousers I’d bought a couple of years ago and the darned thing — that had fitted quite well — slipped straight off my hips. I’ve had an aim of losing a few kilograms over the past few years but absolutely refuse to adhere to any particular diet. Instead, I’ve been trying to eat breakfast, cut my meal consumption to two a day and get some exercise. For one reason or another, without my really noticing it, I’ve shed the fat.
So anyway, there I was with Parvathy, in a good mood.
“Living in Malaysia has been great,” I enthused. “I’ve lost a few pounds.”
“How did you do it?” she asked, greatly interested.
“I don’t eat the food.”
It was a statement as a joke, meant to elicit a laugh, but is truer than you can imagine.
Food in Malaysia. Everyone raves about it. As did I. Not any more. If the United States has an obesity epidemic (as Alexander Cockburn so drily observes), then its Asian equivalent is Malaysia. By the universe, I’ve seen some porkers around. And, like Cockburn, from all age groups. Young men and women sporting enough spare tyres to service a car is not a healthy look. I try to imagine them having sex (hey, I’m an erotic romance writer, okay?) and it just doesn’t quite work. Let’s break it down.
Satay. Mmmm, those delicious charcoal-grilled skewers of meat. Not too many lean pieces are used. And they’ve been marinated in a sugar mix. And basted constantly with oil. Before being served with a sauce thick with peanuts. And palm oil. And sugar.
Nasi lemak. Well, for a start, “lemak” means “fat” in Malay. The rice has been cooked in coconut milk. The ikan bilis (dried anchovies) have been fried in palm oil. The sambal contains sugar. The really nice, smooth-tasting sambals contain condensed milk, I kid you not.
Roti canai. Oh, that flaky, crunchy, soft-as-butter layered flat bread! Made with evaporated or condensed milk. Also, heaps of ghee.
Laksa lemak. Coconut milk. Palm oil.
Run of the mill curry. Palm oil. Coconut milk.
Chicken rice (and I’m sobbing as I type this because this is my favourite dish). Chicken fat in the rice, the more the better.
So, what’s wrong with palm oil? Palm oil, my stalwart Asian readers, contains between 49% (palm oil) and 81% (palm kernel oil) saturated fat. Did you get that? Up to EIGHTY-ONE PERCENT saturated fat!!! Do you know what saturated fat does to you? It clogs your arteries. It increases your (bad) cholesterol level. One of the reasons humans eat fat is to help produce energy to maintain our body temperature but in an equatorial country, for crying out loud, that need is at a minimum, so it gets socked away in our bodies instead. Malaysians gleefully go through palm oil like it’s water and say things like, the curry is no good if it doesn’t have a layer of oil floating on top. Doh!
And as for coconut milk. Now, maybe coconut milk isn’t as bad as I was thinking. However, it still has a fat content of around 17%. I mean, we go nutso over milk, having “skim”, “low-fat”, and “zero-fat” versions, all because the full-cream product contains — are you ready? — 4% of fat. But we’ll wave coconut milk through as being “healthy” with a fat content of SEVENTEEN PERCENT?
The upshot of all this is that a normal Malaysian meal is a heart attack just waiting to happen. Now, I’m trying not to get all paranoid over this. I had a big bowl of laksa last night for dinner, for example. But I probably won’t have another one for another 3-4 weeks. The same goes for nasi lemak. And I don’t think we’ve had any roti canai for more than a month. And I’m not secretly looking at all those dishes, thinking to myself how I’d like to devour some curry and roti for breakfast every day. There are heaps of other dishes we cook at home that are healthy, and that the kids love, but that don’t pack the same kind of lethal punch as you get in an average Malaysian food court.
Part of the problem is that cooked food is so cheap here. And professional women tend not to cook. (One of my cousins, at the age of 35+, cooked her very first curry and called us, Malaysia to Australia, to tell us the good news. She didn’t really learn how to cook anything else, but would commandeer the kitchen when guests were due, so she could “show off” her “cooking prowess” with her infamous one curry.) It’s just a lot easier to grab some grub from the local stalls and head home rather than swelter away in a hot kitchen with no air-conditioning.
And, if you have children, the chaotic two-sessions-a-day school schedule kicks in. You might have one child going to morning school ( start at 7:00am-ish, finish around 2pm) and another going to afternoon school (start at 1:00pm-ish, finish around 7pm). They may then shoot off to tuition a few times a week before heading home. Trying to organise a mealtime together gets difficult, especially when you add in two working adults. Servants also cook, and that’s an option, but the kind of food they cook is, again, not the healthiest, relying mostly on frying. We cook at home about five nights a week and go through three litres of oil in 4-5 months of cooking. That’s seen as being very unusual in a country where families buy large 5-litre bottles of palm oil, often filling the shopping trolley with them, close to festival time.
One of the final factors is that Malaysia is the world’s top producer of palm oil. So what’s the most common form of fat you get here? Yep, palm oil. The one that also happens to be the unhealthiest in the world. We buy pure canola oil, but that’s easily three times the price of palm oil and, at the rate that Malaysians go through it, the average family simply can’t afford it. And don’t even get us started on olive oil, which goes for an average of RM30 per 700ml bottle for the good stuff.
And, lastly, you have the average Malaysian’s utter love affair with fat. If the Scots hadn’t come up with deep-fried, battered Mars bars, the Malaysians would’ve. Malaysians can take anything and turn it into a feast of fat. Order prawns and it will come fried in pure butter with curry leaves and butter-fried breadcrumbs. The problem is, it’s absolutely delicious (Butter Prawns, KL style). I ordered Cantonese-style flat rice noodles at a Malay restaurant a couple of weekends ago, and it came as a full-on fried kway teow (noodles fried with soya sauce in oil) and surrounded by an Chinese-style sauce thickened with cornflour and egg, to which meat and vegetables had been added. Hey guys, one or the other, but not both on the same plate! Deep-fried sushi; puff pastry enclosing everything, from custard to tuna curry; tea and coffee, loaded with condensed milk AND sugar; fruit danish pastries topped with slices of pound cake; doughnuts glazed with chocolate icing, then decorated with chocolate sprinkles, and filled with chocolate custard; pizzas with tearaway crusts that contain three cheeses and are topped by cornflakes sprinkled with more cheese; fried noodles, fried rice, fried anything-that-stands-still-long-enough; and deliciously golden fried chicken, as far as the eye can see.
It’s okay from time to time. But it’s a complete overload on a daily basis. And, fellow Malaysians, it’s killing you. Somehow, that plate of mutton rendang (coconut milk, sugar) doesn’t look quite so attractive any more.
ADDITIONAL: In concentrating on the fat, I completely forgot the diabetes risk from the sugar. The average Malaysian consumes one kilogram (2.2 pounds) of sugar a week! Add that to the fat intake, and I’m surprised there are even people still alive in the country. All it shows me is that the human body is a wonderful mechanism that can truly take a bucketful of punishment under the cover of pleasure.